Aaron Ekblad

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Ekblad, Yandle, Stralman are biggest X-factors for Panthers

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

We know this much about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers: They have the potential to be a really good offensive team, while new starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a potential game-changer in net.

The latter fills the biggest position of need and is a high-profile player with an extensive track record of success. What he does on the ice will play a significant role in what the team does in the standings and whether or not it will be able to get back to the playoffs.

Even though Bobrovsky might be the single most important player on the ice, the team in front of him can still help him out and make the transition to a new team easier by improving its overall defensive play and lessening the workload he will have to face every night.

That must start with the duo of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under PressureThree Questions]

Both players are signed long-term and will count nearly $14 million against the cap for the next four years (Ekblad is signed for two additional years after that) and are the most prominent defensemen on the team. They play the most minutes, they are great in the offensive zone, and they are among the most productive players in the league at their position.

All of that is great and valuable.

What has not been great is their inability to actually stop teams defensively, and that is something that is going to have to change for the Panthers to find success.

For all of their production offensively, Ekblad and Yandle have consistently sat among the bottom-third of NHL defenders over the past three years when it comes to preventing shot attempts and scoring chances at even-strength, while the Panthers have consistently been outshot and outchanced when they are on the ice. That is true whether they are paired together (something that has happened frequently over the past three years) and when they are split apart.

The problem for the Panthers is Ekblad and Yandle provide a very important skill that is a necessity for a winning team — offensive firepower from the blue line.

But for as good as they are in that area that skillset starts to get negated if they are giving up just as much, if not more, at the other end of the ice. You don’t want them to give up too much of their strength because, well, that is their strength and a big part of why they are valuable. But if the Panthers can’t get some sort of improvement out of them defensively that is going to be a big hurdle to overcome in their quest to return to the playoffs.

That is going to be the big challenge for new coach Joel Quenneville as he has to decide whether to keep them together as a pairing, how to distribute their minutes, and how to retain their offensive value while also not giving up even more on the defensive side.

The intriguing option here is where new defender Anton Stralman might be able to fit in.

Stralman, when healthy, has been one of the steadiest and most reliable defensive players in the league throughout his career. He was an outstanding complement to Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay for years, and even though he’s older and coming off an injury-shortened season (obviously two potential red flags) there seems to at least be the potential for him to help solidify a team that needs a massive upgrade defensively.

If he can provide the steadying presence, and maybe give Ekblad or Yandle a reliable partner that can make a world of difference for the Panthers.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pressure is on Tallon for Panthers to win after big offseason

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

Even with their lack of recent success there has still been a lot to like about this Florida Panthers team.

Aleksander Barkov is one of the best all-around players in the world and just now entering his prime years. He is a star and a cornerstone player that you should be able to build a championship contending team around.

Along with him, the Panthers just finished the 2018-19 season as a top-10 offensive team and have a pretty promising core of forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. When combined with Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle on defense, there is a foundation here they should be able to compete with. What’s even better is that a lot of those core players (specifically Barkov and Huberdeau) are signed long-term to team-friendly contracts under the salary cap.

The key was going to be for general manager Dale Tallon and the front office to put the right people around them to allow that to happen. That was the mission for this offseason.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The only question that matters for the Panthers — and Tallon specifically — is if he acquired the right people.

Among the new additions to the organization…

  • The hiring of Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning and future Hall of Fame coach that has a history of success with Tallon.
  • One of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason in starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on a massive seven-year, $70 million contract. In the short-term it could be a huge addition and maybe even help put the Panthers back in the playoffs. Given Bobrovsky’s age, inevitable decline, and size of the contract it could also become a long-term headache.
  • The additional free agent signings of defender Anton Stralman (three years, $16.5 million) and forward Brett Connolly (four years, $14 million)

Those are some big contracts, all of them carrying varying degrees of long-term risk. It will probably become very apparent very early in the process if they are going to make a positive impact on getting the Panthers to where they want to be. That means Tallon’s long-term future with the team could be riding on the success or failure of those signings.

Tallon has been in a position of power with the Panthers since 2010 and during that time the team has seen its roster get overhauled, is now on its seventh different head coach, and has just two playoff appearances (and only five playoff victories) to show for that time. Given the talent the Panthers have at the top of the lineup, the high-profile coach they just hired, and the money they handed out this offseason (not to mention the eight-year contract defenseman Mike Matheson just signed a year ago) the expectation has to be for the Panthers to win, and to win right now.

The longer the team goes without winning, the more likely it is more changes get made and the Panthers are running out of people to change before they get to Tallon. You can’t trade every player, and it makes little sense to trade a Barkov or Huberdeau because the rest of the team isn’t good enough.

Quenneville is going to get some kind of an extended leash to start because of his resume and the fact he literally just arrived.

That leaves the person responsible for the final say over what the team looks like.

In the end the Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks Tallon’s tenure in Florida.

If the Panthers get the Vezina-caliber goalie he was in Columbus it might be enough to propel them back to the playoffs this season and beyond.

If they do not get that goalie it is probably going to be more of the same for the Panthers on the ice, leaving the team with a pricey goalie on the wrong side of 30. That simply will not be good enough.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Calder runner-up Stone says injured wrist is ‘100 percent’

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It’s been a pretty good summer for breakout Sens forward Mark Stone.

He finished second to Aaron Ekblad as the NHL’s top rookie, scored a three-year, $10.5 million extension from the Sens and, this week, confirmed there’s no lingering effect from the P.K. Subban slash he took to the wrist during Ottawa’s opening-round playoff loss to Montreal.

“It’s felt great out there the last couple of skates,” he told the Ottawa Sun. “The shot feels good. The hands feel good. My legs are starting to come along. I feel good and I feel like I’m 100 percent.”

That wasn’t the case this spring, when Stone suffered a microfracture from the Subban slash — an incident that set off a mini-firestorm between two clubs. Following the series, which the Habs won four games to two, Stone expressed frustration over how much the injury — which occurred in the second period of Game 1 — limited him.

Stone played through the injury, but needed to freeze his wrist before and sometimes again during each game.

“It was just frustrating not being able to feel parts of my wrist and parts of my fingers,” he explained. “It definitely didn’t help my shot, but I was able to play through it.”

Now healthy, Stone can focus on two major tasks — getting Ottawa back into the playoffs, and avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump.

McDavid, Eichel headline NHLPA Rookie Showcase

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This year’s NHLPA Rookie Showcase won’t be lacking star power.

The top two picks at this year’s entry draft — Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel — will be in attendance, along with 38 other prospects that’ll descend upon Toronto on Tuesday, Sept. 1 for photo ops and media availability.

The list of invitees, per the players’ union:

Connor McDavid (Oilers), Jack Eichel (Sabres), Dylan Strome (Coyotes), Mitch Marner (Maple Leafs), Noah Hanifin (Hurricanes), Ivan Barbashev (Blues), Chris Bigras (Avalanche), Oliver Bjorkstrand (Blue Jackets), Madison Bowey (Capitals), Connor Brown (Maple Leafs), Michael Dal Colle (Islanders), Nikolaj Ehlers (Jets), Robby Fabbri (Blues), Zach Fucale (Canadiens), Nikolay Goldobin (Sharks), Ryan Hartman (Blackhawks), Connor Hellebuyck (Jets), Julius Honka (Stars), Kasperi Kapanen (Maple Leafs), Ronalds Kenins (Canucks), Slater Koekkoek (Lightning), Dylan Larkin (Red Wings), Sonny Milano (Blue Jackets), Samuel Morin (Flyers), Mike Matheson (Panthers), Michael McCarron (Canadiens), Josh Morrissey (Jets), Brendan Perlini (Coyotes), Nic Petan (Jets), Emile Poirier (Flames), Shane Prince (Senators), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), John Quenneville (Devils), Mike Reilly (Wild), Nick Ritchie (Ducks), Travis Sanheim (Flyers), Mackenzie Skapski (Rangers), Brady Skjei (Rangers), Shea Theodore (Ducks) and Jake Virtanen (Canucks).

This will mark the seventh year the PA has gathered rookies for its annual event. Last year’s Rookie Showcase featured 33 players, including Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad and fellow finalist Johnny Gaudreau.

Florida Panthers ’15-16 Outlook

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Jaromir Jagr is extremely important to the Florida Panthers, and not just because he found such great chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

One can imagine a scenario where the Panthers’ bounty of youngsters make a huge leap and help Florida burst onto the scene in its market.

Still, many would probably agree that the Panthers are more likely to make incremental improvements in 2015-16, which pivots back to Jagr: if this team wants any butts in seats, their veterans may be the ones to draw them. Even if it’s really about the young guns.

Discuss Florida’s attendance issues here.

Barring that meteoric rise, it will take time for crucial casual fans to really get acquainted with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Barkov and even Aaron Ekblad.

In the meantime, the Panthers can trumpet Jagr’s continued gallop through the record books to entice the less-hardcore among their potential base. Just look at how much he could climb if the 43-year-old continues to defy the aging process:

All-time goals list:

3. Brett Hull – 741 goals
4. Marcel Dionne – 731
5. Jagr – 722

All-time points:

2. Mark Messier: 1,887 points
3. Gordie Howe: 1,850
4. Jagr: 1,802

Remarkable stuff, right?

Roberto Luongo may be a subtle draw, too, although goalies probably don’t bring in audiences quite like a seemingly ageless, legendary forward might.

Again, the truth is that Jagr would ideally serve as a supporting cast member on the ice. The Panthers will probably just market him as if he’s still the marquee star – at least until the team is clearly in contention – and who would blame them?